Their prisoner was not a very imposing man. About average height and average build, with an average face that could not be called either very handsome or ugly, short mousy hair, surprisingly few scars… He was the kind of man you'd pass by without second thought. In fact, his most distinguishing feature at the moment was the blooming bruise on his left cheekbone that Khalid gave him while he was trying to escape from the battle. For some reason you always subconsciously expected evil to somehow corrupt the flesh, leave its mark on the outside so that no monster could hide from the righteous. Reality, sadly, wasn't quite so accommodating to the righteous, and the righteous had a difficult task of figuring it all out by themselves. Estel watched as Kivan interrogated the man who probably killed dozens of people, and he looked… almost innocent. Just another man caught up in events beyond his control.
At least, that's what he was trying to convince Kivan in.
"Look, I'm just a camp follower, I cook and stuff! I don't know anything!"
"So you're a cowardly bandit," Imoen shrugged, not looking up from the pile of loot she was sorting through. The bandit camp they ransacked provided no clues as to the location of the main camp, but it did have a lot of treasure, probably accumulated from all the travelers these bandits robbed and killed. Some of those trinkets were engraved and so could be returned to their previous owners' families, if the chance presented itself, but the rest, as Imoen saw it, were payment to be divided among members of the group. Adventurers did need to repair their weapons and armor and, plainly, eat. Those stuck up paladins could always get anything they needed from their temple, but Imoen the Quick didn't have a wealthy sponsor to allow herself to throw well-earned treasures away.
"I'm not a bandit!" the man shrieked. "I've never killed anybody!"
"Doesn't make you innocent if yours was not the hand that held the knife," Kivan cut him off irritably. The archer paced restlessly. This prisoner was their only link to Tazok, and so the elf had to control himself. Even Jaheira did not dispute his right to be the one to interrogate their captive, even though the druid watched him warily.
Estel's forehead throbbed. Jaheira did her best to heal the wicked slash that missed her eye by sheer miracle and cut across her eyebrow instead (as Imoen commented, Estel was simply lucky to be so short), but it still felt raw and itched and... smelled. The herbal concoction that Jaheira applied to Estel's first battle wound was eye-watering. She wasn't even going to start thinking about how she'd just actually intentionally killed someone.
"What's your name?" Estel pushed off the boulder she was sitting on and approached the prisoner.
"Uh... W-what?" the man stammered, looking at her as if she was some frightening apparition. To be fair, she probably was. She was tired, shaken, soaking wet and her forehead itched – all in all, she was in no mood to be the proper mild-mannered girl she was brought up to be.
"Your name," she repeated tiredly. "You do have one, right?"
"B-bill," the bandit answered after some hesitation.
"Alright, bandit Bill," Estel tried not to look in the direction of the snigger she heard. "We're all tired and soaked and want to get some well-earned rest by the fire, so let's not beat around the bush. You can't possibly think that whoever organized this will protect you. You might think they'll kill you if you betray them, but the simple fact is that they aren't here, Bill," she brought her face closer to the bandit's. "We are. And all of us have many good reasons and imagination for very inventive killing of the last surviving bandit in this camp."
The self-proclaimed Bill whimpered. One crazy elf with murderous black eyes, who was worryingly fondling the longbow he looted off Silversword, was bad enough. His maniacal smaller version who actually managed to kill Silversword was almost more than a man's bladder could handle.
"On the other hand," Estel straightened. "You will find us in a very happy and cooperative disposition if you just tell us where the main bandit camp is and how many bandits are there. Where and how many, Bill, that's all you need to say to book yourself a comfortable journey to Beregost where the local Flaming Fist detachment will be happy to accept into their protection the man who helped stabilize the entire region."
"They'll kill me and scalp me!" Bill squeaked.
"Think about it!" Estel hissed forcefully. "We can kill you now, or you can tell us what we need to know and wait out the destruction of your buddies in the custody of the guards who will be very lenient to a useful informant. And your bandit colleagues will be destroyed, I guarantee you that. Why stick to the losing side?"
"But I don't know..." the prisoner tried again.
"Estel, can I talk to you for a moment?" Jaheira interjected and walked away.
"I'll let you think on it," Estel promised and turned away, following Jaheira, and so she missed the uncharacteristically calculating look the bandit gave her retreating back.
Imoen didn't. She was watching her friend's tough show very intently, trying hard not to laugh and spoil everything.
"What are you doing?" Jaheira hissed once they were relatively out of earshot.
"Making him talk," Estel whispered back angrily. "Why would he talk if there's nothing in it for him?"
"But drag him all the way back to Beregost?"
"I'm sorry, were you planning to kill him once he spills everything?" the elf tried to raise an eyebrow, but it was still painful.
"He is a bandit," the druid pointed out.
"He says he isn't, not really."
"And you believe him?"
"It doesn't matter what I believe, we're not killing a prisoner in cold blood, and we're definitely not promising to let him live to get information and then killing him in cold blood." Estel was prepared to stand her ground. It was one thing to kill in battle, when you had no other choice; she was slowly coming to terms with that necessity. But it was quite the other to kill a helpless man who might've just fallen in with the wrong crowd, because it was inconvenient to keep him alive. "We need to resupply in Beregost anyway. And we need help from the Flaming Fist to attack the main camp, it's just too big for us to handle on our own."
Jaheira looked at her intently, but Estel held her gaze. Finally, the druid nodded with satisfaction and went back to the prisoner, leaving bewildered Estel behind.
"Wait, was that a test? Jaheira!" Estel hated her guardian's 'figure it out by yourself' methods of education, even though she saw the value of such lessons.
"I'm telling you, it's all I know! I heard them talking about Cloakwood!" Bill was saying desperately to Kivan as she approached. The elf groaned inwardly. She'd read all sorts of things about Cloakwood. Giant spiders, wyvern lairs and portals to other planes particularly came to mind. That, however, didn't seem to discourage various bands of outlaws to make their bases in that ill-reputed forest. Or, perhaps, its danger was exactly the reason for its popularity with this kind of people: large bands of armed men presumably had no trouble fending off the otherwordly dangers of Cloakwood, whereas random possible witnesses invariably got eaten.
"Cloakwood is a vast forest." Kivan nodded to Estel and turned back to the prisoner.
"It's all I know!" he repeated desperately. "They said they had to deliver a message to Tazok in Cloakwood!"
The ranger bristled visibly at the mention of his enemy. Estel put a calming hand on his forearm. "Did they say anything else?"
"Well, then the other guy said good luck with that, and that it was as likely to end up spider snack as get to that camp," the bandit added thoughtfully. "Does that help?"
"South of Cloakwood is infested with giant spiders," Kivan said and Jaheira nodded her agreement. Estel couldn't suppress audible groan this time. Spiders. Giant ones. As a child she'd actually devoted some time to studying the possibility of spiders in general originating from another plane of existence. She just couldn't accept that something so revolting was a part of natural order.
There wasn't much else they could get out of Bill, and so, as promised, the party set out towards Beregost. There were supplies to purchase for braving the dangers of the ancient Cloakwood (Estel was particularly interested in antidotes against spider venom), wounds to heal and alliance with the Flaming Fist to secure. This mercenary band was what passed for the city guard in Baldur's Gate. In the city that was founded by pirates and mercenaries in the first place it made perfect sense. Their influence stretched almost as far as Nashkel, and it was actually their job to hunt down bandits and keep the roads clear.
Their prisoner was watched in turn by Kivan and Khalid. Not that he'd even attempted to escape. On the contrary, he seemed content to be given over to the Flaming Fist. All that seemed very suspicious to Imoen. She made a point of always walking behind Bill – if that was even his name; Imoen suspected it was rather something like Rodberg the Foul, - so that she could keep him in her sight.
"You're awfully quiet," Xan commented, walking beside her. He often drifted to the tail of the party, not quite built for long marches. "Up to something? Should I be worried?"
"You're doomed anyway, why bother?" the girl answered cheerfully. She'd already discovered that simply stating that everything would be alright because it ought to be alright was not enough with Xan. You had to make him contradict himself.
"Indeed," the mage sighed. "Must you make light of everything?"
"As opposed to poisoning my life by constantly dwelling on the risks and dangers?" Imoen shrugged. "It's all in the way you look at it. You can make the same life interesting and exciting or hopeless and dangerous. Your choice."
"Sometimes I envy your blind optimism," Xan rolled his eyes. There wasn't much else he could say, because, essentially, she was right. Some people were able to enjoy adventures and dangers and life on the road. Perhaps they saw some purpose in all this pointless struggle that eluded him.
"Yes, yes, what is the point if we're all going to die someday?" Imoen rolled her eyes, all too familiar with anything Xan had to say on the subject. No lesson in magic passed without a heated discussion on the pointlessness of life. "How does the fact that someday you're going to die prevent you from enjoying life today? Everyone and everything dies! What would be the point otherwise?"
"What is the point if everything dies?"
"That's the whole point! Enjoy what you have now, because someday it's going to end! If you had eternal supply of apple pies, would you even care about them? An apple pie is tasty because you don't have them all the time."
"Astonishing," Xan said after a few moments of silence. "You actually draw comfort from the same fact that gives me despair."
"Us humans are strange folk," the girl shrugged, watching the prisoner for any signs of misbehavior.
"And… this is what you think about when you seek purpose?" the elf asked, looking at her searchingly. When they first met, he'd thought there was nothing to her but childish cheerfulness and naivety that was going to get her killed soon enough. As their journey forced them closer together, he was beginning to see that… no, not that there was more to her than met the eye, not exactly. Imoen was indeed childish to some extent, endlessly cheerful and somewhat naïve. It was just that he was beginning to think his understanding of the words was flawed.
"Of course not, silly! I don't need to think about enjoying living to enjoy living. I just thought about it because I needed something to stop you talking about how everything is hollow and we're going to die. And then I remembered that year when we had so many apples, old Puffgut had to invent new dishes everyday just to get rid of them. There was that cider you could clean silver with, and apple soup, apple pies…" Imoen shuddered. "I still can't look at apples."
"I think I am going to have a mental picture of piles of apples every time I think about pointlessness of life," Xan raised an eyebrow.
"Good, that's what I was going for," Imoen answered, completely ignoring his sarcastic tone. "Anyway, this guy is up to something. I've seen how he watches Estel when he thinks no one is looking at him."
"There's nothing he can do. We'll be in Beregost soon, and he'll be safely off our hands," Xan looked at the bandit with worry.
"I'll be watching him, just in case. Tell me more about the magic Weave."